The Early Years
It is a fact that I was born on September 17th, 1933, in Regina, capital city of the province of Saskatchewan. I think I have been told it was at 2:35 AM, but I don’t know for sure. It seems like a reasonable time to me. I don’t recall ever being told why I was born in Regina when my mother (Letitia Anne), father (Clifford NMI), and 2½ year older brother (also Clifford NMI), lived on a smallish farm, near the city of Swift Current (population of 5000 at that time), a 3-hour drive west of Regina. I was christened Charles William but was always called Bill, for reasons I was never told nor understood. This eventually resulted in my being randomly called Bill, Billy, William, Willie, Charles, Charlie, and even Chuck, at various times as an adult.
I’ve often wondered why my brother and father got only one name between them (with No Middle Initial) while I got at least two all just for me. I have long suspected this was the beginning of my tendency to embrace multiple personalities to match my various names (or moods).
Our family survived the Dirty 30’s better than many people, partly because my father worked for periods of time at the Swift Current Experimental Station. During the Dirty Thirties, he helped establish remedial farming practices such as alternating crop fields with areas of grass or alfalfa (strip-farming) and planting fast-growing tree belts to break the force of the winds. The face of Saskatchewan slowly changed from being just bare flat prairie, to become flat prairie with clumps of trees and strips of grass or hay. Dugouts became common on many farms as a way of collecting and holding water to get the livestock though the hot dry summers.
The ‘fishing’ picture was taken on our farm, probably to show what could be done on the dry prairie. It was obviously a posed picture—my brother and I weren’t gullible enough to think there would be fish in an artificial dugout that often dried up by the end of summer. Or maybe it had been stocked with some kind of experimental fish, for all I know. I really don’t remember.
His job provided some income, but I do recall hearing a lot about ‘the starving Armenians’ when I didn’t want to eat my vegetables, so I assume they were worse off than we were. I didn’t quite understand how my eating vegetables would help them in any significant way unless it was their vegetables I was or wasn’t eating. In that case, wouldn’t they be better off if I didn’t eat them so maybe they could? I didn’t invest very much time trying to resolve this problem.
My father also periodically announced, “It’s time for an austerity program.”
I did understand that this meant we were spending no money for anything until further notice. That I could understand.
His work had side benefits; such as our house having a 12-volt battery operated electrical lighting system (and later a 120-volt generator that would start when you tried to turn on a light) at a time long before the rural areas began being serviced by commercial hydroelectric power. The Experimental Station needed to run trials of new technologies and equipment and we were convenient and willing guinea pigs. There were probably a lot of other experimental goodies of which I was not aware. I do remember we got a special, secret rhubarb root, which was not commercially available. I didn’t notice any difference, but everyone else raved about how red and sweet it was.
One other source of income for the family was my father’s work with a horse marketing board to sell horsemeat overseas, primarily to Belgium where it was a delicacy. At the time of the depression, the Prairies had a lot of horses made surplus by the change from horse drawn implements to tractors for fieldwork. The grasslands had suffered from the drought and the constantly drifting soil, leaving little to feed the horses. The sale of horsemeat from Canada, which began out of necessity in the 1930’s to reduce a surplus of horses, has continued to the present time. Live horses are shipped to Canada and Mexico from the United States for ‘processing’ and the meat shipped back to the United States.
Our house was a large, two-story, stone building. The area under the house had been excavated to provide space for a coal burning furnace, a large coal storage area, a root cellar, and a couple of rustic storage rooms. The walls and floors were roughly hewn dirt and there was no provision for light or ventilation. For some reason, this dark, damp, stale area didn’t terrify me as much as it should have, maybe because I didn’t have to feed coal to the furnace. The heated water circulated on the principle of convection, more or less, to radiators throughout the house. The expansion tank upstairs in my bedroom, would overflow a few times every winter.
The cultivated land around the homestead was sandy and not very fertile for growing grain crops. A good wheat crop would yield maybe 15 bushels per acre, compared with a Manitoba crop of 40 bushels per acre. The low yield was somewhat offset by the lower cultivating costs. Even the weeds didn’t grow well. We also grew wheat, some barley, oats and alfalfa for feed. Most of the straw was baled for animal bedding in the winter.
Harvest in those days consisted of cutting crops with a binder that tied them with a length of ‘binder twine’ into bundles called sheaves (as in the hymn, ‘bringing in the sheaves’). They would then be butted onto the ground and tipped toward each other at the top to form miniature tipis of 4, 6 or more sheaves to make a ‘stook’. It would be an even number because a person would grab one sheaf in each hand by the twine. They would dry in the field before being fed into a threshing machine or forked onto a wagon to be taken to the barn to be stored as feed for the livestock. Both the process of stooking and the tossing of sheaves into a wagon with a pitchfork was better upper body exercise than any modern gym equipment. My bulging biceps in Grades 6–8 were the envy of my classmates at a time when comparing the development of body parts was an important activity. I wasn’t nearly as successful in other body-part competitions. Don’t ask.
We also raised a constantly changing variety of animals of different kinds and breeds. They provided a multitude of experiences and I learned a wide assortment of skills, only some of which proved useful later in life.
Milking the cows was one such limited-use experience. The cows would come to the barn when I called them (they knew there would be food in the manger) and would go directly into their own stall. When they put their heads through the stanchion in order to get their hay, the stanchion would be closed to hold their head secure. The rest of the cow was free to move around—a disturbing experience when you are seated right against her stomach, close to her right-rear leg, and within swatting range of her often wet and usually dirty tail.
Some cows would stand patiently while they were being milked. Others would try to kick the milk pail away and required the use of anti-kick ‘leg cuffs’ which loosely constrained their back legs to each other. The assumption was that when the cow tried to kick with one leg the other leg would restrain it. This usually worked well . . . except for the times when the restraining leg would be pulled out from under the cow and I would end up with a cow sitting on my lap while I tried to hold the partially filled pail of milk safely out of the way with one hand and the cow with the other.
Another useful tactic was to have the cow’s tail clamped by a gopher trap tied to the back wall. Even with the best of planning, one would never get through a week of twice-a-day milking without at least once having a cow put its foot into the half-full milk pail or kicking it (and me) over.
The best part of milking was feeding a barn cat fresh warm milk directly from the teat. The cat would sit well back behind the cow (out of range of a kick) and wait expectantly for me to shoot a stream of really fresh, warm milk close to him. The cat would adjust its position and lick the milk right out of the air as it was shot close to him. It could drink stream after stream without missing a drop—its little pink tongue just a continuous blur.
We also raised sheep of assorted breeds, probably as research for the Experimental Station. I can’t think of any other reason for having continually changing breeds, especially when sheep were not a common farm animal in our area. Sheep were a good preparation for a lot of things. They taught me how hard it is to herd them, not unlike a lot of people I was to meet in my later life. They would follow a lead sheep without any concern about what sheep that happened to be at the time; but they would not be herded. They would run off to the side, or back from where they came. They would do anything but go where they were supposed to go.
Enter Jim—40 pounds of black and white Border Collie sheep dog. He was trained to respond to whistle, voice and hand motions to herd livestock of any size and in any number with amazing skill and enthusiasm. On command, he could separate one or more specific sheep from a flock using one-on-one nipping and pushing.
Occasionally, a sheep might challenge his authority and they would have a stare down. Jim always won, with the sheep turning tail and going where directed. The same thing would happen with a full-grown bull. Jim would win, often easily dodging a well-aimed kick as the bull turned and ran away. He would herd any animal from a cat to a horse. He was an incorrigible car chaser, running close beside the tire and nipping at it. He knew no fear. Anything that moved seemed to trigger his built-in motion detector and innate love of herding. I have met a number of people with these same characteristics, but they never had the same degree of finesse as was exhibited by Jim.
I did find the experience of shearing a sheep, which weighed as much as I did, to be satisfying as well as challenging. The sheep did not share my enthusiasm, but most of them were relaxed and accepting of the process unless the shears accidentally nicked them. I never did well with hand shears, but power shears were almost fun. After being shorn of their wool, the sheep would be run through a trough of sheep dip to kill the ubiquitous sheep ticks, which are like wood ticks but with a more aggressive attitude. The smell of sheep dip, and the oily feel of the wool, not to mention having to check for tics before going to bed, made it less fun than you might expect.
We also raised goats for several years. And yes, they really do enjoy sneaking up behind you and butting you severely . . . and repeatedly. I’ve tried drinking goat’s milk, and I accept that it is very good for you, but the look of the glass with its thick, lumpy white coating after you empty it was more than I could handle emotionally.
The cultivated part of our farm was smallish, but was augmented by a large area of pastureland rented on a 99-year lease from the municipality. It was mostly hilly and rocky with a large ravine (good for a short downhill ski in the winter), but it did have a small spring trickling into a pond, making it ideal for grazing livestock.
We had a few horses. I spent many happy hours riding ‘my’ horse (named Charlie) around the pasture fixing the fences and checking on the whereabouts and welfare of the cattle. I think he was designated as being mine because he was big, headstrong, and restless. He loved galloping and jumping over ditches. He casually bucked me off more times than I could count. I’m sure he didn’t think of it as bucking and would think, “Dumb kid. He fell off, again.”
He and I were kindred spirits, although I kept my restless spirit better hidden than he did. The rest of the family wasn’t as keen on adventurous riding expeditions and preferred horses with more agreeable temperaments.
We were a fifteen-minute drive from the nearest schools in Swift Current. Usually my brother and I took a school bus that turned off the highway and then traveled a mile and a half along a dirt road to pick us up at our door. However, it didn’t take much rain or snow to discourage the bus driver, resulting in our missing quite a bit of school time. Sometimes in the winter, we would have to take a shortcut across the snow-covered field on skis until the roads were cleared through the snowdrifts. Usually, I would have to pull my bulky euphonium (you’ll hear more than you want to know about the euphonium in the next section) on a toboggan. When the snowfall was particularly heavy, the rural municipality would run a snowplow down the road to push the snow off into the ditches. Sometimes we would stay in town overnight in inclement weather. When my own children were young I’m sure they got tired of my stories beginning with, “You think that’s bad? When I was your age . . .”
There were periods of time when we stayed in town with relatives. Aunt Isabel’s father lived in town several blocks from the school and she sometimes lived there. The walk from her place to school included what seemed to me to be a huge hill with the school at the top. Actually, a lot of my memories of Swift Current involve walking up hills. My junior high school was at the top of a different hill. I have very few memories of ever walking down hills.
Maybe the prairies aren’t really as flat as everyone says. Maybe they are more like a part of the artist Escher’s world with endless stairs going on forever.
One day when I was in primary school, maybe Grade 2, I confused the recess bell with the dismissal bell and walked to Aunt Isabel’s place, as was my custom, and played outside in the back yard. I remember having an absolutely lovely time playing in some mud and making paths in it—probably for the non-existent pedal car in my imagination. I did think a few times that someone should be picking me up to take me home soon, but the thought quickly passed. Eventually I was picked up to go back to the farm. I had enjoyed a long, quiet time playing. I do vaguely remembered being in trouble for being messy with mud and for having worried everyone by disappearing for over an hour. Mostly I remember it as a lovely afternoon. If I’d had the chance I would have happily done it again. In Grade 6, I decided I needed to have some claim to fame. Scholastically, I was always at the top of my class, but it wasn’t satisfying to me because there was no challenge in achieving success. I got high marks with no work because, or so I thought, my classmates were not the brightest kids on the block. My first major search for a raison d’etre resulted in my becoming entranced with magic. I discovered a company that would send me their free catalog listing literally hundreds of magic tricks and equipment with prices ranging from a few cents to a few hundred dollars each. The catalogue was at least 3 inches thick and provided me with hours of engrossed study. Although the secrets of the tricks were not revealed in the catalog, many of them had enough description for me to discern their processes. The ones I purchased (courtesy of my parents’ generosity) included detailed lines of patter to go with the presentation, making it easy for me to become more of a showman than my congenital nature would have predicated. I learned to be an actor. I also learned a lot of other things through my adventures with magic, not
the least of which was not to be gullible. Years later, I found the popular TV show, The Amazing Kreskin, fascinating to watch partly because many of his performances could be explained rather easily if one knew what to watch for and where and when to look. That is not to say the things he did weren’t real. But if they were, there were much easier ways to do them than by being a mentalist.
I decided taxidermy might be a way to fill my need for recognition and fame. I enrolled in a mail-order course, invested in some glass eyes and excelsior for my specimens, and a nose plug for me. I needed dead things for mounting. It was near the end of World War II and ammunition was a scarce commodity. I learned to trap small animals and developed considerable skill with a 22-calibre rifle. I would take one bullet with me and hike out to the patch of trees a short distance away to acquire a specimen. I’d have to wait until I had found a nice looking specimen of some not too desirable bird or animal (like a gopher, crow, or magpie). Then I would wait patiently for a good clean shot. I rarely came back empty handed.
The whole taxidermy process itself was high on the ‘yucky’ scale and was never in the running as a long-term career goal for me. It was a useful experience for several reasons. I learned a lot about birds and animals and developed respect for them and their environment.
One unexpected thing I learned was that I was not afraid of death. One day, I was hunting, and being in a strange mood, I found myself with the rifle at my temple and my thumb on the trigger. I suppose it started with the idea I would shoot myself, but my overactive brain took over and I became engrossed in a conversation with myself. I wasn’t sure I was brave enough to pull the trigger but the only way to prove that would be rather counterproductive to my knowing how brave I was. I certainly didn’t want to chicken out, not that anyone would ever know. My internal conversation lasted long enough for me to end up sitting on a stump looking more like Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ than a serious suicide attempt. I finally realized that if I didn’t pull the trigger at that moment, I could work out the logic (or illogic) of the dilemma at some later time; but if I did pull the trigger at this moment I would never be sure if I did it just to prove a point—and I didn’t have a clear idea as to just what point that was. That day, I returned home with the unused bullet and quit taxidermy forever.
I couldn’t justify my having the power of life or death over a living creature (even myself) just for my own satisfaction, even if I rationalized the process as being one of preserving its image forever.
Life and death was an integral part of my existence on the farm from a very early age. The experience of chopping off a chicken’s head and seeing it run around headless and spurting blood was as frequent then as it now is to visit the local supermarket to purchase an antiseptically prepared chicken for Sunday supper. Because I was a good shot, and pigs have very small foreheads, it became my job to initiate the first step in the slaughtering of pigs. Since I was good at that, I soon became the unofficial animal executor on the farm. We were spared no details of the skinning and preparation of carcasses for our daily food.
In later years, I became adept at counseling suicidal individuals and I’ve never lost one. I think my suicide counseling success was due at least in part, to my firsthand experience with the death of animals and my realization of just how easy it is to live or die.
I believe many suicidal young people just need to find something else to do or think about at that specific time . . . and maybe someone to really listen to what they have to say, no matter how long it takes. This might help explain why attempted suicides often are not repeated. The person is hospitalized for a period of time and has a totally new environment in which to sort out confusing thoughts, often unrelated to the apparent cause of the attempt. I used to be bewildered as to how a few hours in a hospital bed could keep a person from just going out and attempting it again. Maybe it has something to do with people attempting suicide as a way of getting other people’s attention. Sometimes it takes a lot to get attention. Most attempted suicides are rather feeble attempts, probably with little real expectation of success. But they do get attention.
I thought maybe I would feel more fulfilled if I became some sort of sports hero. Hockey was out because it was Saskatchewan in the 50’s and there wasn’t a surplus of water to make skating rinks. Even the Swift Current Creek was bone dry by midsummer.
I had no ability or interest in team sports. In fact, I used to dread the Friday afternoons when the teacher would give the class a ‘treat’ and allow us to play baseball all afternoon. I alternated my time between hoping no one would hit the ball anywhere near me when I was in the outfield, and hoping I could at least hit the ball somewhere when I got up to bat.
I did feel that sports were an important part of life, for reasons I still don’t understand. So I tried track and field. I wasn’t too bad at high jumping, but I hated the trip down, and pole vaulting was just plain scary. Sprinting required too much concentration on the starting blocks. The starting pistol mostly startled me into forgetting I was supposed to start running.
Long distance running seemed to be a good choice. I could run laps in the gym at noon hour or after school, and on the roads at the farm every morning and evening. Besides, I could shower at school with hot and cold running water.
At home there was a large cistern in which water, trucked in from somewhere, was stored. Water was hand-pumped out of the cistern and heated on a coal stove. There was a bathtub upstairs so the heated water had to be carried in pails up to the tub. It was quite a major process. The bathwater would flow down the drain, through a pipe and out into the yard. In the summer it was easier to use a washtub in the yard.
My father often said, “Get outside and get the smell blown off you.”
At the time, I thought it was just a funny way to say, “Go get a breath of fresh air.” Maybe he actually exactly what he said.
My running eventually produced painful shin splints on the sides of my legs so I had to give up running. It wasn’t a big sacrifice because I hadn’t managed to break the five-minute barrier at a time Roger Banister was running the four-minute mile. I had to accept that my future fame in the world lay somewhere else other than sports.
In class, my friends and I had a lot of spare time. We used to practice throwing our geometry compasses so they would stick into the floor or walls. We got really good at it and threw them into the floor with great enthusiasm. One day I was sitting with my legs sticking straight out into the aisle while my friend was flipping his compass near them. I’m not sure if it was his bad or good aim that caused the compass to suddenly be sticking into the bone of my leg. It didn’t hurt, but neither of us was sure what the protocol was for removing a compass from a leg. Tentative pulling on it indicated it was well imbedded. Discussing it with the teacher or anyone in authority was not an option because that could easily lead into discussion as to how such an interesting event had occurred. So I held my leg firmly while my friend grabbed the compass with both hands and pulled it out.
Everything seemed alright until I noticed my sock getting wet and red. Pulling up my pant leg revealed a little rivulet of blood running down my leg into my sock. I stuffed a hanky up my pant leg and it stopped the bleeding. This was my first revelation that I was actually defenseless against random damage at the hands of the world. Prior to this time I worked under the assumption, as I think all teenagers do, that I was invincible, invulnerable, and indestructible.
Later that same summer another event shook my feelings of eternal security. Working on the farm with machinery and cars I had somewhere picked up the feeling that people my age never die. I think I have mentioned earlier that I make no claim to ever being smart. Safe procedures and caution were not part of my way of life. If a car was up on a jack I just naturally assumed it would stay there. Why should it fall over when I was under the car? Just because the power takeoff from the tractor to the combine was spinning a few inches from my pant leg, why should that concern me? If the pickup on the combine was blocked, why waste time and effort stopping it before I reached in to unplug it?
That summer, I learned that a school friend of mine had been killed while riding in the back of a pickup truck when its load of lumber shifted. Fortunately for me, this occurred when school was out and I didn’t learn about it until well after the funeral. What bothered me most was that he had asked to borrow some money from me before school closed and I had turned him down. And now it was too late. I still have great difficulty in rejecting a request for financial help even from total strangers on the street.
I discovered in my teen years I have a tendency to step off roofs. I was painting the shingled roof of a small shed with brilliant red, oil-based paint. After painting for a couple of hours, I was a bit bored and stood up to stretch. The roof looked so nice I decided to get a better look and stepped back for a better perspective. It did not occur to me that the nice expanse of painted roof stretching out in front of me might imply I was close to the edge of the roof. I ended up draped over a gasoline storage tank with the half-gallon of red paint upside down on my head and running down over my chest. My mother was horrified when she saw me because she thought it was blood. This scenario was repeated on another occasion many years later, off a garage roof into a water barrel. This time it was water-based paint, which was a definite improvement. And it wasn’t red.
I have developed the habit of talking to myself whenever I have to work on a roof, “Don’t step back, you are on a roof, don’t step back.”
~ The Argument Continues ~
(from a September 2008, news report)
About 100,000 American horses are exported for slaughter in Mexico and Canada each year.
The U.S. ‘Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act,’ would make it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to possess or transport horsemeat for human consumption or horses intended to be slaughtered for human meals.